December 3, 2017
A Very British row
Donald Trump’s rebuke to Theresa May was not just another tweet
EARLY morning fusillades of gibberish are nothing new in the Trump presidency. Nor is a tendency to attack allies, or to give encouragement to racist groups. On November 29th, though, the President achieved a rare triple. On waking he seems to have grabbed his phone to attack CNN, give air to an old conspiracy theory and broadcast propaganda from a hitherto obscure band of British xenophobes to his 43.6m Twitter followers. Later in the day he had a go at Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, whose office had earlier criticised him for thinking with his thumb. One sound strategy for staying sane in 2017 has been to ignore Mr Trump’s tweets. Yet this morning barrage revealed traits that go to the core of the man in the Oval Office.
One is an astonishing lack of curiosity about where information comes from. Britain First, whose nonsense the President retweeted, was until this week at the fringe of the fringe of far-right English politics. Its members are a hapless bunch, too boneheaded to conceal their animus against brown people. The group’s leader, Paul Golding, was expelled from the slightly more mainstream British National Party (BNP), which itself is marginal (it gained more than 1% of the vote in only three of Britain’s 650 parliamentary constituencies in the general election earlier this year). Mr Golding was deemed too racist for the BNP when he picked a fight with its only non-white council member. Mr Golding has a taste for actual fights, too: he has admitted a charge of assault. As hardly anyone in Britain had heard of Britain First, neither presumably had Mr Trump. But the group sounded like America First, which must have been flattering and therefore good. And it seemed to share Mr Trump’s views on Muslims, which was good, too. That was all the information the President needed before giving his endorsement.
A Special but Unequal Relationship as Trump browbeats Theresa May on Twitter.
A second characteristic is a thin skin. Despite the power of his office, Mr Trump often feels picked-upon. When Mrs May’s staff rebuked him for the Britain First stuff, he could not resist: “Theresa, don’t focus on me, focus on the destructive Radical Islamic Terrorism that is taking place within the United Kingdom. We are doing just fine!” When Mr Trump was rebuked for criticising London’s (Muslim) mayor after a lethal terrorist attack, his tweets on the subject became more frenzied. Mr Trump felt similarly aggrieved when he was denounced for his equivocal response to a white-supremacist march in Charlottesville (“many sides” were to blame).
Mrs May, whose government badly wants a trade deal with America after Britain leaves the European Union, was taking a calculated risk. Most foreign leaders have already worked out that the president responds well to big parades and badly to well-intentioned criticism. In Mrs May’s case, though, the rebuke was worth it. Mr Trump has, amazingly, managed to unite MPs who can agree on little else right now, as well as to promote interfaith dialogue. Prominent British Muslims were joined in condemnation by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, has previously said he thinks Mr Trump is a racist. After his election win last year, discussions about a state visit to Britain began. One sticking point was that Mr Trump wished the occasion to be optimised for pomp: gilded horse-drawn carriages and all. It was thought more prudent, if he came, to helicopter him in to the queen’s garden, avoiding crowds of protesters. If the state visit happened tomorrow, there might be a riot.
The good news, for transatlantic relations at least, is that Mr Trump’s tendency to go after steadfast allies can be put right, with a little stroking. Malcolm Turnbull, Australia’s prime minister, was an early victim, but America’s policy towards it has barely changed. British Prime Ministers are obsequiously paranoid about maintaining what they see as the special relationship with America’s presidents. Moreover, the foundation of the relationship is shared intelligence and diplomacy, which is relatively tweet-resistant. In fact, for Mrs May, who is trying to negotiate the world’s most complicated divorce while hampered by unpopularity and a self-sabotaging cabinet, a spat with Mr Trump could be just what she needs.